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Criminal justice advocates step up efforts to push for more reforms

Advocates for the Clean Slate Act rally outside the State Capitol on Dec. 1, 2022.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Advocates for the Clean Slate Act rally outside the State Capitol on Dec. 1, 2022.

Advocates for new criminal justice reforms held rallies across the state this week as part of a new effort to get the governor and Legislature to agree to more changes that would benefit people convicted of crimes.

The Clean Slate Act would seal old conviction records for certain crimes. Advocates say New Yorkers with criminal convictions who have served their time could more easily obtain jobs, housing and educational opportunities to help remake their lives.

Under the bill, the records would be automatically sealed after three years for misdemeanor convictions and seven years for felonies as long as the person has completed their sentence and is not on parole or been charged with or convicted of any new crimes.

Some businesses are also backing the measure, including Verizon, Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase.

Paul Zuber with the Business Council of New York State spoke at a rally and said it gives people with criminal records a needed chance.

“It gives people an opportunity to be judged on the people they are now, rather than the people they were in their past,” said Zuber, who added those affected would still have to go through the hiring process and be evaluated along with other candidates for a job.

Zuber said the Business Council helped write the bill, and it includes safeguards for employers. Any job that requires fingerprinting as a condition of employment is excluded from the proposal.

He said it could even help bring down the crime rate.

“There’s a lot of talk about crime in this country,” he said. “Well, what are we doing when we are not giving people jobs?”

Criminal justice advocates were quieter throughout most of the 2022 campaign season, which included Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s close race to seek election to a full term in office. Republicans highlighted New York’s increased rate of violent crime and linked it to bail reform, a major criminal justice reform that Democrats approved in 2019 – bail reform. Data does not show that bail reform caused the crime spike.

Katie Schaffer, a spokeswoman for the Clean Slate Act, said organizers focused more during the fall on actions in local legislative districts.

They now plan a series of events when the 2023 legislative session begins, including more rallies at the Capitol in January.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.